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Inside North Korea's Elite: Dr. Edward Goldring on Dictatorships, Purges and Succession

Updated: Apr 26


Dr Edward Goldring is a comparative political scientist and lecturer (assistant professor) in the Department of Politics at the University of York. Dr Goldring was a postdoctoral fellow at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and prior to that a predoctoral fellow at the University of South California’s Korean Studies Institute. Dr Goldring’s work primarily focuses on the comparative study of authoritarian politics, North Korea and elite politics. Dr Goldring’s work has been published in journals including the British Journal of Political Science, Comparative Political Studies, International Studies Quarterly, Journal of Peace Research and Democratization. Visit his website for more information.

Note: this interview was recorded on October 6, 2023

Much of your research has been focused on the methods used by authoritarian regimes to survive, particularly through the use of purges to consolidate power. Could you explain how purges are beneficial to dictators?

Dr Goldring: So our knowledge about purges is really limited, it's something that scholars have talked about as far back as the 1950s and 1960s but there wasn't any empirical work on purges until the mid 2010s. What we know is limited however the assumption within the current literature is that purges are used to consolidate power.

By that I mean, if you imagine you have a pie, and that pie represents the amount of power within the regime and so when a dictator comes to power he often has a plurality of power, but he probably has a relatively small share of that pie. Over time these dictators will then often expand their share of the pie. So when Kim Jong Un came to power we thought he was quite constrained due to his relationship with his influential uncle, Jang Song-thaek, and figures in the military such as prominent general Hyon Yong-chol [Both individuals would later be purged]. The assumption in the literature is that dictators use purges to essentially expand their share of the pie. Take Xi Jinping, who has become increasingly more powerful in China, we think his purges of military and party elites, in particular when he first came to power, played a key role in the regime increasingly revolving around him instead of the CCP.

This is how the literature traditionally thinks purges are used by dictators to stay in power, now the work that I'm doing suggests that purges are much more multifaceted than that, they serve different purposes. I would argue that purges serve three primary purposes. Firstly, they are to consolidate power. Secondly, to punish disloyalty, what you often see is coup attempts against dictators and then after that, there comes a purge. By purging, I mean removing an individual from the regime’s inner circle. I would call this an “elite purge”. You can have other types of purges, however, I think elite purges are the most important.

Now after a coup attempt, a dictator basically has to purge, he has no choice because if he doesn't it exposes the fact that he is weak. It's also an opportunity because he has just overcome a coup attempt, demonstrating his strength and creating this window of opportunity. This both stops those disloyal from challenging him again in the future and it also deters others, displaying the consequences of going against the regime. The third, perhaps arguably the most interesting way that purges help dictators stay in power, is through something called “scapegoating”. So for instance, if something negative happens within the regime which causes the people to hold increasingly negative views of the dictator, a dictator can purge an official to blame them for what has transpired, diverting negative feelings.

Could you give an example of this type of purging?

Dr Goldring: So, I can give you an example of that. For instance, under Kim Jong-il during the 1990’s there was a famine across North Korea, we don't know exactly how many were killed, it could have been anything from 200,000 to two million. This was a result of political choices made by the state, the North Korean narrative was that they had devastating weather and this washed away fields used for agriculture, which is partly true. However, there were no food reserves for the population because the state chose to prioritise food towards the military and political elite. So, Kim Jong-il had an official executed to blame them for the disastrous agricultural policies.

I can give you one more example of this. In 2009 black markets had really risen up in North Korea in the mid-2000s. These markets obviously went against the very philosophy of North Korean politics, as it's a form of capitalism. This meant anyone who had accumulated significant capital reserves through the black market was essentially ideologically disloyal. So, what the North Korean regime did, under Kim Jong-il, was to introduce a currency reform that replaced the old Won with a new Won which was worth 10-1. This new exchange rate meant that anyone who had saved up significant capital reserves was going to be hit particularly hard by this. You could also only exchange a limited amount of the old Won.

So would you consider this as its own form of purge, an economic purge?

Dr Goldring: It was certainly an economic punishment towards individuals who were not part of the regime, however, I would not describe it as a purge. It was certainly aimed at punishing those perceived as being disloyal, which as you can imagine was unsurprisingly unpopular however we almost never hear of protests in North Korea. There are, however, reports of incidents where people openly showed dissent towards the regime on the streets over this currency reform, which is incredibly rare. This was crushed incredibly quickly, however as a response to this, Kim Jong-il had his finance minister, Pak Nam-gi, publicly executed in order to blame him for the unsuccessful currency reform. So I would group purges as helping dictators survive based on consolidation, punishment and scapegoating.

You have mentioned Kim Jong-il numerous times in reference to purging. Large-scale purges under his leadership were the historical norm for power consolidation in North Korea. Most notably in 2010 when Kim Jong-il replaced 78% of the entire politburo, one year prior to his son, Kim Jong Un taking power. How important are purges like this for regime succession?

Dr Goldring: Everything I'm going to talk about is based on my working research, which right now is under peer review and has received positive reviews so hopefully will be out soon. The short answer is that purges can be useful for regime succession but they can also be really dangerous and may end up being the exact thing you don't want to do. Earlier I used the phrase “inner circle”, political scientists also often use the phrases “ruling coalitions'' or “winning coalitions”. These are the key supporters of a dictator, key supporters in that they will in theory carry out his bidding but also in that they’re the powerful players within the political machine. A dictator needs the support of a sufficient number of them in order to stay in power.

So, when a dictator is preparing for succession, often there are visible signs for this, typically age or health. One example I can talk about is with former president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, who increasingly got older and older. Being visibly, incredibly old we know that when these dictators start to age other powerful figures within the regime are forward-thinking, they will always be looking towards who comes next to challenge the power of the dictator. Dictators can solve this issue through succession planning which can stop elites from infighting over who will be the next successor.

The reason why I say purges can be really useful but also be the thing you don't want to do is because if the dictator is visibly weak and potentially vulnerable, then purging can massively backfire. Earlier I used the phrase, “windows of opportunity”, for when dictators purge. Purges are an inherently risky thing to do, you are going up against potentially powerful individuals and so there is a risk that they or their supporters will retaliate. There are lots of instances when dictators try to purge and it backfires, resulting in elites coalescing against the dictator. This is exactly what happened in Zimbabwe when Mugabe was preparing for succession. There was a long build-up of whether it was going to be his wife, Grace Mugabe or the Vice President, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who had his own powerful faction from the military. Mugabe ends up leaning towards his wife, he tries to purge Mnangagwa’s faction however Mnangagwa manages to escape the country and convinces other elites to help restore him to power.

I actually think there was a similar situation in North Korea, but Kim Jong-il was a lot more careful about it. We did see members of the Poliburu being replaced in the build-up to the succession of power in 2010 but replacement and purges are not necessarily the same thing. As an elite, you may lose your position, but you could still remain a member of the “winning coalition. And, this is a theoretical concept so it depends on how we define a “purge”. Maybe, you lose your position in the Politburo however you could still maintain a ministerial position.

So to classify purges empirically you need a careful definition of what this entails. What the data that I’ve been looking at shows, ahead of the succession, is that Kim Jong-il significantly expanded the size of the ruling coalition. Lots of outside elites became far more prominent during this period, and this was a combination of two types of people. You had both younger officials who were not necessarily as important before and older officials who were on the periphery of the inner elite.

The best example of this is Kim Jong Un’s uncle, Jang Song-thaek. Jang under Kim Jong-il went through periods of prominence, periods of exclusion, and even times spent in labour camps. What I think, and have argued in the research that will hopefully be published soon, is that Kim Jong-il was building up a powerbase for Kim Jong Un, so that when he came to power he would have people who could obey his commands and keep the state governing. This, at the end of the day, is what elites want the most because the thing they all fear the most is general instability.

You mentioned that Kim Jong-il was careful in how he purged the elite as part of a succession process, could you go into more detail about how his approach differed from other dictators such as Mugabe?

Dr Goldring: So, I would argue that Kim Jong-il was very careful not to purge the military. Kim Jong-il governed with what’s called “Songun” politics. This means military-first politics and so military figures were prominent in running the regime through the National Defence Commission and even with significant positions on the Politburo. I think what Kim Jong-il was very careful to do, was not to risk antagonising the military. A question I often get is, “Well weren't they antagonised by him building up a powerbase for Kim Jong Un primarily amongst the party”, however at the end of the day, you’re not always going to get everything you want in a dictatorship. For military elites, seeing civilian elites become more powerful is far more palatable than seeing you or your fellows be executed or imprisoned.

I think this was a soft-elite management strategy from Kim Jong-il for Kim Jong Un. Then continued when Kim Jong Un came to power. So for succession, Kim Jong-il started to slim down the number of powerful elites by expanding the ruling/winning coalition, without targeting the military at first. He was careful to keep military elites in prominent positions, not taking the risk of alienating them whilst reshuffling civilian elites who hadn't had an explicit role in his power base.

So you make a difference between “elite reshuffling” and purges. Under Kim Jong Un we have seen a continued use of explicitly violent purges with both the 2013 execution of his uncle who you previously mentioned, Jang Song-thaek and the 2015 execution of Minister of Defense Hyon Yong-chol. How important is it to show such acts of public violent force when you are a new dictator?

Dr Goldring: I think it is important however the problem with answering a question like this is that we have a small sample of examples. We have Kim Jong Un and we have other dictators, but how many twenty-seven-year-old dictators or young dictators in general do we have to look at? The answer is, not a huge number. So this makes it difficult to make generalisations.

There are certain North Korean observers who think that Jang Song-thaek specifically was targeted for removal before Kim Jong Un even came to power. One author of a very good book about North Korean elite politics, provides a defector account which we can't absolutely trust but I think is a solid source in terms of how North Korean reporting goes, that Kim Jong-il told Kim Jong Un that Jang Song-thaek would help govern for a certain number of years but then he would need to be purged. Because he was getting too big for his boots there was a risk that he could see himself as the power centre of the regime.

You ask about how important it is to do this publicly and violently and I think based on the observable evidence we have to assume that Kim Jong Un on some level felt that this was important. Often we can be guilty of looking at dictatorships and ascribing every action specifically to the dictator, when in fact there are lots of individuals who influence what happens. For instance, the execution of half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, it is debatable to say if Kim Jong Un specifically ordered this. But with the execution of Jang Song-thaek it is hard to believe that anyone else could have orchestrated this the way it was. With both the public nature of him being hauled out of a Politburo meeting and the public nature of his execution, I think we have to assume that this level of public violence was to be displayed to other elites.

Although I said there are not many comparisons, Saddam Hussein’s 1979 purge is an example. As soon as he comes to power through regime succession he has a number of prominent Ba’athist Party elites very publicly executed. So, I think this does seem to be important to certain dictators who believe in ruling through fear. To them, some form of violence is necessary but, they must carry out this violence early so as not to repeatedly antagonise elites.

When the Workers Party of Korea was first founded in the late 1940s it maintained a strong Marxist-Leninist ideology, however, since the Kim regime completely consolidated power following the Korean War, the ideology of “Juche” came to dominate North Korean politics. Juche emphasises both the independence and sovereignty of the North Korean state and its society as an entity solely self-reliant and devoid of all outside influences.

This has gone as far as to remove references to Marx and communism from public spaces, education and party propaganda. Is Juche a genuine ideology and how important is it in structuring North Korean elite politics?

Dr Goldring: It's a really good question, and it's an important question. Juche is not my area of expertise so I’ll give you my own short opinion based on my study of North Korea. I think Juche is a real ideology but this depends on what we mean by “ideology” and I don't mean that in a flippant way to your question. So yes I would call it a real ideology, is it that specific to North Korea? No, I don't really think so. I might get in trouble for saying this but look at America, I lived in America for five years whilst doing my Ph.D. and I know and believe that America is genuinely a democracy, although there are strong beliefs such as “America first”. This has similar ideas behind it as Juche does in terms of inwards-looking values, so I think Juche is a real ideology.

Do I think it's that unique to North Korea? No, and I also don't think it is what holds North Korea back from engaging with the rest of the world. That’s the choices of the North Korean regime. I think it's used mainly to justify the way the regime governs internally to its domestic audience. It promotes the nation as having an external enemy, America, permanently which enables the regime to essentially put the people on what we think of as a wartime footing. Juche, or “self-reliance” as it is often translated, is a justification used by the elite to rule in the way they do. Something you may find interesting is that the architect of Juche, Hwang Jang-yop, actually defected to South Korea

Earlier you mentioned “Songun”, this is the second ideological tenet of the regime which emphasises the importance of the military above all else. What role does the military serve within the North Korean elite?

Dr Goldring: The military is incredibly important to the North Korean elite, the nation is very much a militarised society. That's not to say that the military completely gets its own way, I alluded earlier to a purge in July 2012 of military general Ri Yong-ho which was a really big deal, Kim Jong Un comes to power in December 2011, by July the next year we’re 99% sure that he had this powerful general executed. This was because Ri Yong-ho wanted to keep access to certain pursestrings tied with the military rather than have Kim Jong Un completely take over.

So, the North Korean military doesn't completely get its own way, but it is absolutely crucial to the elite structure. To go back to succession, I talked earlier about the strategy to build Kim Jong Un so that he could be seen by the North Korean elite as a plausible and capable leader to build up a power base. One thing he did was to have Kim Jong Un tasked with leading two specific military actions both to demonstrate his military command and also to test that the military would respond to his command. One of these actions you may have heard of is the sinking of a South Korean naval vessel, ROKS Cheonan, and then also the shelling of the South Korean Yeonpyeong islands. We think both of these actions were part of the succession process, this was Kim Jong Un leading the military for the first time. This shows just how crucial the North Korean military is for the country, society and elites, this is where significant power resides within the regime.

In your opinion why have we not seen a successful military coup, considering how powerful the military is?

Dr Goldring: I really like this question because it's something I've talked to a lot of people in South Korea about. When you approach it from a Western academic scholarship viewpoint versus when you come at it from a South Korean government/think tank viewpoint you get very different perspectives.

I consider this question from a theoretical perspective as we think of dictators as primarily being driven by survival. The main threat to all dictators is a coup, typically from the military. So I always think, to what extent are the Kim regime’s actions driven by fear of falling to a coup? Now, if you go to South Korea and talk to certain think tanks and you ask this sort of question, some of them may laugh at you. To them, it is so laughable the idea that there would be a coup in North Korea. I do not want to denigrate all of the South Korean policy community, there are some who share a similar perspective to me that although it may be farfetched that there might be a coup attempt, that doesn't mean that the actions by the Kims are not driven attempts to prevent coups from occurring. The fact that a coup occurring is so farfetched doesn't mean that it could never happen, but rather that the actions of the Kim regime to prevent such coups have been successful.

So why hasn't there been one? There are various reasons, one is that the Kims have always known “where their bread is buttered”, so to speak. They know who to pay out, who to send private goods to, who to reward, and who to keep in important positions within the military. They also know how to rotate officials, as I said before rotations/reshuffling are not the same as purges. Comparative studies show that officials in these regimes get regularly rotated to prevent them from working with the same powerful elites repeatedly over long periods of time, preventing potentially threatening relationships of power that could challenge a dictator. This stops horizontal relationships with more powerful elites but also vertical relationships with other less powerful elites.

All three Kims have used political officers, these are political commissars placed within the military who function as intra-military spies whose role is to directly report military affairs to the regime. There is also the Pyongyang Defence Command which exists outside of the regular military structure, this is an example of “counter-balancing” where dictators create paramilitary organisations to counter the strength of the traditional military, dividing military units under different structures to prevent challenging power consolidation. This is a real challenge for the Kim regime, in the early decades of the regime they needed a powerful military due to ambitions of invading South Korea and unifying the peninsula and today still require this strength for defence. So there is a challenge in finding this balance in preventing a coup from happening but also maintaining a strong military.

Generally, I think they have done a good job at keeping the military satisfied, you can view the nuclear weapons and missile programs as an artefact of this, it's both important for defence and also maintains military elite satisfaction. These weapons give the military the confidence that they have the weapons to do their jobs and adds an extra level of prestige.

My final question is about the future of North Korea. Against all odds and in the face of continued international isolation, economic instability and most recently the devastating after-effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the regime has continued. Whilst other similar totalitarian eastern bloc regimes such as Hoxha’s Albania or Ceausescu’s Romania collapsed, the Kim dynasty remains.

What do you see as the future of the nation and how do you see the role of elites evolving in a post-Kim Jong Un North Korea?

Dr Goldring: We do need to consider a post-Kim Jong Un North Korea, I don't think he will die tomorrow however his health is a concern. So, we need to think about what would happen if Kim Jong Un were to die, especially considering he comes from a family with a history of health conditions. It would be irresponsible, policy-wise and academically, to not think about this. There are some who think this is not a topic for scholarship, I disagree, this is very important.

A few years ago, everyone was thinking about his sister, Kim Yo-jong, and I’ll be honest I saw this as a bit far-fetched. Historically, at the elite level, North Korea has been a sexist regime and so the idea of a woman taking power seemed somewhat preposterous. I’m not so sure about this anymore, the last few years have changed my mind. The prominence of Kim Ju-ae, his eldest daughter, and how she is talked about in state media, through the use of specific phrases which denote reverence usually exclusive to leaders within the Kim family and her appearances alongside military officials makes it look like she is being positioned as a successor.

This comes with a caveat, Kim Jong Un was not the original intended successor, he is the third eldest child so Kim Ju-ae’s current positioning could easily change. We believe that Kim Jong Un has three children, two daughters and a son. So, perhaps Kim Ju-ae is a placeholder until the son is older, but these are also children so as they get older their personalities may develop differently and this could change both Kim Jong Un’s opinion and our analysis of who will succeed. Due to modern medicine, we may also see Kim Jong Un live another 30 or 40 years, so this is all speculation. Either way, I don't see the regime going anywhere and I don't see this as a great source of instability.

The traditional view of succession from a comparative perspective is that succession is a time of instability, however, dictators across the world, including in North Korea, have increasingly solved the issue through familial succession. We’re seeing elite rivalry being contained internally, Turkmenistan for example, such that these regimes have managed to survive. This comes back to your earlier question of why hasn't the North Korean military launched a coup, because, at the end of the day, the one thing that elites in regimes agree on is they don't want to see democratisation or instability. Coordination has to happen around an individual, if disagreements happen they have to be resolved internally so that disputes do not spill out into civil war.

Were this to happen in North Korea it would be disastrous, not just for North Koreans but also China, South Korea and the US. The nightmare scenario is that control over North Korea’s missiles and nuclear weapons is no longer certain. There are voices within Washington who will say that Kim Jong Un is a reassuring presence for Americans, which may seem counterintuitive but there is another argument that the existence of the North Korean regime justifies American military presence and hardware close to China’s border. So does America really want North Korea to disappear? When the regime threatens to launch nuclear weapons at America, yes. But, there are credible think tanks in Washington D.C that believe that a stable North Korea in its current form is not the worst thing in the world from an American strategic perspective.

In short, to answer your question, we’ve seen instability elsewhere however I see no signs of this same instability in North Korea. Back in 2010-11, quite a few articles were published about the regime struggling to survive with instability coming and not to denigrate these credible people, but they were wrong. And this is part of the nature of how risky and speculative it is to study North Korea, so personally I do not see any major signs of instability.


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